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GM by Default

Have you ever run a game because no one else will?

I know I’ve done this in the past, and probably will again — and I’d be willing to bet you’ve done the same thing at least once. Why does this happen?

You probably know the feeling: everyone wants to game, but no one wants to GM — and even though “everyone” includes you, and maybe the work that goes into GMing sounds more like work and less like fun, you wind up running a game anyway.

For me, the reason why seems to boil down to one thing: because everyone knows that if no one else will run a game, you will. You’re the GM by default.

That’s not always made explicit (though it sometimes is), and in fact I think it often happens without anyone noticing that it’s taking place. It’s also not the only reason — there are others, like the fact that there are more players out there than GMs, or that no one else has enough time to run a game, or “because you have all the books” — but this it is the reason that stands out the most to me.

Back in high school, I did a lot of gaming with the same group of five or six people, and four of us had experience GMing. And yet, for years Stephan (who I mentioned in my last post, “How Did You Learn to GM? [1]“) GMed much more often than any of the rest of us.

This was partly because he was very good at it, and we all consistently had a good time in his games. But there were times when it came down to the the fact that unless Stephan was really insistent about it, we all knew he’d eventually wear down and run something. (It’s happened since then, too, with other groups, which is why I don’t view this as an isolated case — it’s just a good example.)

I think that a lot of GMs started out as GMs, rather than as players — and once you’re in those shoes, it can be hard to get out of them. Not that they’re bad shoes: if they were, no one would want to run games at all! But I know that for me, at least, when I’ve joined a group as a player and the person who was GMing at that time “steps down” after a while, it’s hard for me not to think of them as still being the GM — the authority of that role carries on, in some way. And by the same token, because I GM much more often than I play, when I do play it can be hard for me to adjust to not running the show.

That’s my take on how one becomes the default GM, but I’m sure there’s more to it than that. What kind of experiences have you had with this, either as a GM or as a player?

11 Comments (Open | Close)

11 Comments To "GM by Default"

#1 Comment By Mike On July 26, 2005 @ 9:31 pm

I have GMed by default on many an occasion, but I have a way, albeit not too nice or true fault of my own, of breaking my group of this habit: I burn out easily.

Don’t get me wrong. I love GMing, but I tend to burn out rather easily when I do, and then don’t show up to play for, say, a few months. By that time I’ve gotten the urge to play again.

This last time, going on six months now, has finally broken them of “Mike’s the GM by default”.

#2 Comment By Abulia On July 26, 2005 @ 11:57 pm

I rarely GM by default; I GM by choice. I enjoy running games. I’m always learning something about a game and the people I run games for. I take steps to make it an enjoyable experience for us all, including myself.

Mostly, I have such a plethora of ideas that I want to move on to the next cool concept. I’ll admit, however, that when there aren’t a whole lot of GMing choices in the group, those of us who have a greater desire to GM tend to be deferred to as “the GM.” That’s a little strange. On occasion I have laid down the dictate that “If I run a game, this is what it’s going to be.” There’s this itch I’ve just got to scratch.

I, and I believe most people, started as players; the person who enters the hobby as a GM is a rarity, IMO. Some players never take on the mantle of the GM and that’s fine; some personality types just don’t lend themselves well to running a game and orchestrating everything that goes into a game, from storytelling to adjucating the rules (probably the part I hate the worst).

Given a choice between not gaming and my having to run a game, I’ll chose the latter every time. With that said, I love to be “just” a player and feel that I’m an excellent player at that; most GMs do pretty well on the opposite side of the screen, for the most part.

I think the bigger crime is GMing by default, not being happy about it, and quietly acquiescing to the group’s demands.

Games are meant to be fun…for everybody at the table.

#3 Comment By Martin On July 27, 2005 @ 9:45 am

(Mike) I have GMed by default on many an occasion, but I have a way, albeit not too nice or true fault of my own, of breaking my group of this habit: I burn out easily.

What is it that burns you out so quickly? People burn out on GMing for different reasons, and I know I’ve learned things about avoiding burn-out from talking to (and watching) other GMs. (And welcome to TT, Mike!)

(Don) I’ll admit, however, that when there aren’t a whole lot of GMing choices in the group, those of us who have a greater desire to GM tend to be deferred to as “the GM.” That’s a little strange.

Do you mean strange in its own right, or strange to you because you only GM by choice?

I, and I believe most people, started as players; the person who enters the hobby as a GM is a rarity, IMO.

That’s a good point. There were some folks in the EN World thread for my last post (on learning to GM) that got their start as GMs, but most folks had played at least a couple of times first. (My own first experience was in the GM’s role, although in the loosest sense of the word.)

Let me expand my comment from this post a little bit: I think there are quite a few GMs who started out as players, but didn’t spend long on that side of the screen. For one reason or another, they switched to GMing fairly quickly, and stuck with it. That seems to be borne out a bit more by the EN World thread.

#4 Comment By ScottM On July 27, 2005 @ 11:39 am

I’ve been fortunate enough to get time on both sides of the screen. In my current primary group, we’d run campaigns in two different systems on alternating weeks, so that the GM for one game could play in the other. That works pretty well, at least for my tastes.

The interesting thing is that Jim has become our GM by default– despite only GMing two campaigns. Partially that came about because I had been burned by player conflict that destroyed my game; that took a while to recover from. It’s also because two of our new players joined during the last campaign and this one, so they’ve only seen him GMing. It’s kind of amusing to me.

#5 Comment By Mike On July 27, 2005 @ 1:56 pm

(Martin) What is it that burns you out so quickly? People burn out on GMing for different reasons, and I know I’ve learned things about avoiding burn-out from talking to (and watching) other GMs. (And welcome to TT, Mike!)

What actually burns me out is the fact that, when I do GM, I begin to gradually get more and more involved in the preparation of the next session that I begin to lose interest in it as a way of relaxing and it no longer becomes fun and begins to feel more like work.

When I began to first GM almost 13 years ago, I had the time to sit down and devote to coming up with the adventure for the next time we played, but as the years went on and demands on my time from different things increased, I no longer had the time, as is the case now.

I run a small web design business and work full-time in the IT department of a hospital as the Electronic Document Analyst (fancy way of saying Adobe Acrobat/QuarkXPress/Microsoft Office geek), so my time is very limited.

So you see why I burn out easily. It really has nothing to do with the game at all.

#6 Comment By Bankuei On July 27, 2005 @ 2:07 pm

At first it was because I was the only guy who would read all the rules and do the prep.

Now it’s because I don’t have a long standing group at the moment, and I’m afraid I’m going to get some kind of stupid “Hot Sauce/Quadraplegic Rape” crap in my gaming.

I have been a player in a UA game for about 2 months now, but I’m thinking about leaving as the Sim stuff ain’t satisfying my Nar/Gamist needs.

Chris

#7 Comment By Martin On July 27, 2005 @ 2:32 pm

(Mike) What actually burns me out is the fact that, when I do GM, I begin to gradually get more and more involved in the preparation of the next session that I begin to lose interest in it as a way of relaxing and it no longer becomes fun and begins to feel more like work.

That makes sense, Mike — and it makes me want to write a post about burn-out and ways to avoid it! When your prep gets more involved as the game progresses, is it due to the increasing complexity of the game/story/whatever, or something else?

(Chris) Now it’s because I don’t have a long standing group at the moment, and I’m afraid I’m going to get some kind of stupid “Hot Sauce/Quadraplegic Rape” crap in my gaming.

I Googled “hot sauce quadropelegic rape,” but to no avail. 😉 What does this mean, Chris?

#8 Comment By Mike On July 27, 2005 @ 5:48 pm

(Martin) When your prep gets more involved as the game progresses, is it due to the increasing complexity of the game/story/whatever, or something else?

I don’t really think I get burned out on gaming. Only once since I have been playing have I ever been burned out on the game.

I think, at least for me, it is the time constraints of game prep vs. other things in my life. I don’t like ‘canned’ adventures, never really have, and do my best to come up with everything that the players in my game come up against. When I have to do all that prep work (adventure background and encounters, mapping, etc.) for a game and still do other projects not related to gaming, its just too much and I have to cut back, and since I have to make money, gaming loses.

#9 Comment By Martin On July 28, 2005 @ 9:07 am

(Chris) Check out the DexCon after action report thread and scroll down to reply #11 (Paka/Judd’s post)

On the one hand, yikes. On the other hand, I’ve come to view that as half the fun of con games: you never know when you’re going to get one so terrible that you joke about it for years to come. 😉

My GenCon group seems to get stuck with one of these every year (one of our favorites was immediately nicknamed “All holes filled with Harn.”)

#10 Comment By Abulia On July 28, 2005 @ 1:05 pm

Do you mean strange in its own right, or strange to you because you only GM by choice?

Strange because they just look at you and expect you to run the game. (Cue cricket chirping) On one hand, it’s nice that they want you to run a game (I view GMing as something of an honor) and on the other hand, it’s like “when do I get to play?”

Even when I don’t want to GM, it doesn’t take much to get me exited to do it. All I need are 2-3 excited players and I’ll run a game, even a game I know little about. I’ve run games with less than 24 hours notice on several occassions. Gotta game!

Right now I’m not running a game and I miss it. I have lots of ideas and games I want to play, and if I have to run them to make it happen, so be it. =)

#11 Comment By Quim On August 25, 2005 @ 11:02 am

What actually burns me out is the fact that, when I do GM, I begin to gradually get more and more involved in the preparation of the next session that I begin to lose interest in it as a way of relaxing and it no longer becomes fun and begins to feel more like work.

In my primary gaming group I also have a sort of infame reputation of burning out easly (I really don’t know why… :). In fact, IMHO, burn out occurs due to several things:
1) The campaing is losing the pace. In long campaings it’s really hard to keep a high level of excitement and cliffhanger in every session, and sometimes there are low periods where GM and Players can be bored of them. It usually happens in loooong crawling dungeons and in investigation adventures where players reach a “cul-de-sac”. Ways to fix this are easy and multiples but sometimes it’s too late.
2) GM finds a more exciting game or project. This has actually happend to me.
3) System burned. Sometimes also in long campaings people get bored of the setting or the rules systems and they just want to explore something different. The problem with that is that (in my experience) harldy ever they return or recover the left campaing in spite of a new one.

So the conclusion to avoid burning out could seem to no to run long campaigs, but I think that would be a wrong statement.

Quim